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Parliamentary Sovereignty and Statutory Interpretation: Balancing Judicial Review and Legislative Intent


In the English law, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is applied to mean that the law made by the Parliament is supreme and its effect on judicial process is that the judiciary does not do judicial review of parliamentary legislation and that in the cases that come before the courts, the courts apply the law as intended by the Parliament. In order to do so, the courts have over a period of time evolved principles of statutory interpretation. The main principles of interpretation are: the literal rule, the golden rule and the purposive rule


Interpretation of Statutes: Parliamentary Intention

In the English law, the interpretation of statutes is done with the purpose of giving effect to the intention of the Parliament. The basic statutory principle that is used for this purpose is the literal rule, which sees the judiciary giving the natural and ordinary meaning to the words in the legislation. The literal rule is applied where the statute is precise and unambiguous so that the natural and ordinary meaning of the words can be applied.

n Sussex Peerage Case, the literal rule was used by the court where it was said that the provisions in the statute must be construed according to the intention of the Parliament

However, at times the provisions in the statute may be ambiguous, or the application of the natural and ordinary meaning to words may lead to absurdity. In such situations, the courts will not apply the literal rule. This is also stated by Amy Street:

Well-known canons of statutory interpretation dictate that on occasions, the courts will interpret a statute contrary to its natural wording while maintaining that they are applying Parliament’s intention.”

  1. Francis Bennion, Bennion on Statutory Interpretation (5th edition, LexisNexis 2008).
  2. (1844) 11 Cl&Fin 85.
  3. Amy Street, Judicial Review and the Rule of Law Who is in Control? (London: The Constitution Society 2013), 45.

Contrary to the principles of literal rule, in situations where the ordinary meaning of the statute cannot be applied, the judiciary applies the golden rule. In Grey v Pearson, it was held that the golden rule must be applied where the natural meaning leads to absurd consequences or is repugnant with the statute. It is noteworthy that the golden rule despite of giving a meaning to words that are contrary to their natural meaning, still endeavours to apply the Parliamentary intention. In order to do so, the courts study the entire statute so as to understand the general statutory scheme which is then given effect to by applying the golden rule. As stated by Amy Street above, the courts give an interpretation to the statute, which may be contrary to its natural wording all the while maintaining that the courts are applying Parliamentary intention. This may at times seem that the court is legislating or being activist in its approach.

Activism by the court is seen where the court may arrive at results in interpretation that are contrary to the legislative intention. In Birmingham City Council v Abdulla, the majority of the Supreme court allowed the respondents' equal pay claim in the High Court instead of the Employment Tribunal as mandated by the statute.

In R v R, the court held that a husband guilty of marital rape, although such an offence was not recognised either by legislation or common law. In Airedale NHS Trust v Bland, the House of Lords allowed discontinuation of life-sustaining treatment and medical support although lawful euthanasia is not permitted under common law.

These cases show that the judiciary may at times play a more active role in law making, however, this is a limited role as courts are circumspect about assuming powers that belong to the Parliament.

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Sir Sales states that even though judiciary has law making power, such power is limited, as it is to be exercised within the constraints of formal rules on precedent and statutory interpretation.

  • (1857) 6 HL Cas 61.
  • [2012] UKSC 47.
  • [1991] UKHL 12.
  • [1993] A.C. 789.
  • McLoughlin v O’Brian [1983] 1 AC 410.
  • Sir Philip Sales, ‘Judges and Legislature: Values into Law,’ (2012) 71(2) Cambridge Law Journal 287, 288.
  • Conclusion

    Courts may at times apply a meaning to the statute which is different from the ordinary meaning so as to give effect to the parliamentary intention. This may at times lead to judicial law making, however, this is a limited activism in view of the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty.


    Bennion F, Bennion on Statutory Interpretation (5th edition, LexisNexis 2008) Sales P, ‘Judges and Legislature: Values into Law,’ (2012) 71(2) Cambridge Law Journal 287

    Street A, Judicial Review and the Rule of Law Who is in Control? (London: The Constitution Society 2013)

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    • Crown Prosecution Services, ‘Guidance regarding honour based violence and forced marriages’, accessed .
    • Crown Prosecution Services, ‘Forced Marriage And Honour Based Violence Cases Guidance On Flagging And Identifying Cases’, accessed .
    • Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Honour Based Violence and Forced Marriage’, accessed .
    • Crown Prosecution Services, ‘UK's first forced marriage conviction’ (10/06/2015), accessed .
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    • GOV.UK “Forced Marriage,” accessed
    • New York Times, ‘Marriage by Force Is Addressed in Britain UNE’ (June 16, 2014), accessed .
    • Queen Mary University of London, ‘Forced Marriage’, accessed .
    • Refuge, ‘Forced Marriage in the UK’, accessed .

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